CHICAGO (AP) — In his decade-long professional career, Francisco Liriano had never thrown a shutout or even a complete game. Not at any level, not in any league.
So much for those old stats. Now, he’s Mr. No-Hitter.
The struggling Minnesota lefty pitched the first no-hitter in the majors this season, hanging on Tuesday night for a most unlikely gem and a 1-0 win over Chicago White Sox.
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“It’s an opportunity for him that he will remember for the rest of his life,” said former Twins ace Bert Blyleven, who’s headed to the Hall of Fame.
Liriano (2-4) began the game with a 9.13 ERA and had been getting tagged so much that there was speculation he’d lose his spot in the Twins’ rotation.
Liriano dodged six walks and struck out only two. Of his 123 pitches, just 66 were strikes.
“To be honest I was running out of gas,” he said. “I just thank my teammates that they made some great plays behind me tonight.”
The final out came on perhaps Chicago’s hardest-hit ball of the evening, with shortstop Matt Tolbert taking two quick steps to snare Adam Dunn’s line drive.
“When I go out there I try to think positive,” the 27-year-old Liriano said. “I don’t want to think about, ‘They’re going to put me in the bullpen.”‘
After lasting just three innings in his previous start against Tampa Bay, Liriano excelled on a cold night at U.S. Cellular Field. The Twins ended a six-game losing streak in a matchup of shaky teams.
Liriano mixed fastballs, sliders and soft stuff, kept the White Sox off-balance and showed the talent that he’s always possessed.
“He was using all of his pitches. It was such a nice thing to see him smile like that,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We’ve said that Liriano has electric stuff, no-hitter stuff. And, he did it tonight.”
Liriano made history more than four years after he underwent Tommy John surgery, hoping to recover from an elbow injury that threatened to take away his eye-popping repertoire and end his career. It’s been a long climb back — last season, he was picked as the AL comeback player of the year.
This year, the Twins have told Liriano to forget the strikeouts, try to pitch to contact, let the defense do the work.
With two outs in the seventh, third baseman Danny Valencia went behind the bag and into foul territory to grab Carlos Quentin’s hard hopper and then made a strong throw to first.
And on Liriano’s final pitch, Dunn hit a liner that appeared headed to left field. But Tolbert moved to his right, made the catch, spun around and raised the ball in triumph with his bare hand.
“I thought it was a base hit,” Liriano said. “When I saw him catch it, I was so excited.”
Tolbert sprinted to the mound, where the pitcher was being mobbed by teammates, to personally deliver the prize.
A season after the Year of the Pitcher featured six no-hitters, there had been a few close calls in the opening months. Liriano, making his 205th career start in the majors and minors, finished off his bid.
Liriano survived a rocky ninth inning that began when Brent Morel grounded to shortstop, with Tolbert making a one-hop throw that first baseman Justin Morneau neatly scooped. Juan Pierre walked and Alexei Ramirez popped to shortstop.
Liriano fell behind Dunn 3-0 in the count, then got a pair of strikes. After a foul ball, Dunn followed with his liner.
Dunn dropped to 0 for 16 against left-handers this season.
“As soon as I hit it, I saw him, and it was right to him,” Dunn said. “That’s pretty much the story of the day. There were some balls that, again, they made some great defensive plays.”
For Tolbert it was the end of an unforgettable experience. He got the start at shortstop as the Twins moved Alexi Casilla to second base.
“I was excited and a little nervous. It’s not every day that you get to play behind a no-hitter,” Tolbert said. “I was thinking somehow we had to get this guy (Dunn) out. I know he’s so dangerous. I was playing him up the middle a little bit, and he hit it in the right spot.”
Liriano was backed by Jason Kubel’s fourth-inning homer. He won in a game that took just 2 hours, 9 minutes.
Liriano, 3-0 against the White Sox last season, walked Pierre leading off the first and Quentin with one out in the second, but both were erased on double plays. Chicago put two on in the fourth, and center fielder Denard Span raced into left-center to grab Quentin’s long drive.
Minnesota turned its third double play in the eighth, when Morneau took an offline throw from Casilla and umpire Paul Emmel called Gordon Beckham out — replays appeared to show Morneau missed the tag.
“I didn’t feel him tagging me on the shoulder,” said Beckham, adding it might have kept the inning alive and forced Liriano to face another hitter.
Edwin Jackson (2-4) lost his fourth straight start despite allowing six hits in eight innings. Then with Arizona, Jackson no-hit Tampa Bay last June 26 despite walking eight.
It was the seventh no-hitter for the Twins-Washington Senators franchise and the first since Eric Milton’s against the Angels on Sept. 11, 1999. It was the first no-hitter in the major leagues since Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay’s against Cincinnati in last year’s NL playoffs.
The White Sox were no-hit for the 13th time, the first since they were beaten by Kansas City’s Bret Saberhagen on Aug. 26, 1991.
Liriano was acquired in 2003 from San Francisco in the famously lopsided trade that also brought Joe Nathan to Minnesota for A.J. Pierzynski.
He burst onto the scene in 2006, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and dominating overmatched hitters with an untouchable slider. But the violent delivery caused him to develop arm problems toward the end of that season and had elbow-ligament replacement surgery that November.
His road back has been a long and difficult one. He missed all of 2007, then struggled to regain his form over the next two years, leading some to wonder if he ever would make it all the way back after going 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA in 2009.
NOTES: Twins DH Jim Thome was put on the 15-day DL with a left oblique strain, and Minnesota will recall INF Trevor Plouffe from Triple-A Rochester. … The White Sox have lost 16 of 20 to fall into last place in the AL Central below the Twins.
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